Cashless Campuses

March 1, 2004
Campus cards with multiple functions not only enhance security, but also allow students and staff to make a wide range of transactions without cash.

For people who don't want their pants pockets or purses weighed down by coins and keys or their wallets fattened by an array of plastic cards, a college campus is becoming the place to be.

Many colleges and universities are taking advantage of technological advances to transform the modest identification card into a powerful commercial tool, as well as a device to enhance campus security. Campus cards can eliminate the need for keys to residence hall buildings and individual rooms, and allow students and staff to purchase meals, supplies and other services — on and off campus — without having to carry coins or currency.

“If you want to be cashless, you can,” says Troy Heppner, campus card coordinator at Seattle University.

Ready to move

Higher-education institutions are eager to upgrade their card systems to incorporate more services and functions, but many have been stymied by budget constraints, says Lowell Adkins, executive director of the National Association of Campus Card Users.

“Both the schools and vendors are wanting to expand into more functions,” says Adkins. “Unfortunately, the factor that none of us can control is the economic situation. There is a pent-up demand across the board — from schools that don't have a system and schools that have a piece of a card system and want to expand. Community colleges are especially a market that can be expanded. You hear over and over again, ‘I'm ready to do this if we only had the funding.’”

The cards offer an impressive assortment of functions for students.

“The technology has changed so much over the years,” says David Kohr, housing director at the University of Syracuse, which began using an early version of the “one-card” system in 1982. “The early systems were designed mostly for food service.”

Today's cards can provide controlled access to residence halls, student apartments, recreational centers, academic buildings, and individual offices and laboratories; it can enable students to check out materials from the library, pay for books and tuition, dining-hall meals, laundry, copying services and parking; buy products from vending machines and from shops and restaurants on and off campus; even vote in campus elections.

As they look to establish or upgrade one-card systems, college administrators want their campus cards to be compatible with other systems that keep track of the school's student records and finances.

“The biggest thing that schools want [card] vendors to do is to establish an interface with administrative and student records, human resources and payroll,” says Adkins.

The more functions placed on a card, the more likely a student will value it and use it with care.

“You try to put as many things on the card as you can,” says Adkins. “The more functions on a card, the more a student sees the card as a focal point of campus life.”

Going off-campus

Students and staff also spend their money away from campus, so many schools have tried to arrange for the debit and credit functions of their campus cards to be accepted by merchants beyond campus boundaries.

“We are increasing the functionality of our cards,” says Heppner. “We are hoping to increase the number of off-campus merchants that will accept the cards and establish banking relationships.”

The value of including off-campus functions will vary from campus to campus.

“It depends on whether the business area is readily accessible to campus,” says Adkins. “If you have a whole street full of local vendors and merchants, it can be a valuable function. If the campus is out by itself in a remote location, it's of less significance.”

At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the NCard ID can be used as a debit card for numerous on-campus purchases. Now, school officials are preparing to add a banking function to the NCard so that students and staff can use the card as a debit card at off-campus merchants.

“Students will be able to use their cards at any business that accepts payment through a PIN system,” says Sue Ostrander, manager of the NCard program. “Students can decide whether to activate that function.”

Ostrander said that the university explored off-campus functions for their cards in the 1990s, but the systems available at the time weren't reliable enough, and the banks backed off.

“Recently, the banks have become interested again in using the cards as a jumping-off point to build customer loyalty among students,” says Ostrander. “There are all sorts of merchants two to three blocks away. The downtown Lincoln area is three blocks from campus.”

Ostrander says that in offering students access to debit and credit functions, Nebraska is trying to give students financial flexibility and an opportunity to learn about budgeting their money wisely. But because the university runs the program, it can monitor student spending more closely than a typical credit-card company might.

“A student can't get too far over their heads,” says Ostrander. “It's more of a controlled, educational way of learning money management.”

But whether it's cash, credit card, or funds in a debit account, students are ultimately responsible for how they manage their money.

“Students are going to spend one way or another,” says Kohr.

Holding back

With budget constraints, many schools can't afford the initial cost of moving to a campuswide system that incorporates all possible school functions onto one card. So some security or commercial functions on campus may operate separately from the campus card.

“We have some standalone keypad entries still at some buildings,” says Heppner. “Our long-term plan is to slowly convert the entire campus to the card system.”

On some campuses, there may be departments that have set up their own system and don't want to give it up to be a part of a larger system.

“Often, there are turf issues or budget issues,” says Adkins.

Practical considerations also can keep some functions from being incorporated onto a single card. At the University of Syracuse, the parking operation has not become part of the campuswide card; the campus card is a swipe card, and parking officials prefer a proximity card so that drivers don't have to strain to reach out of a vehicle and swipe a card.

But technology can solve that problem, too. Kohr says that the university has long-range plans to convert to a card with both swipe and proximity functions so that the parking operation can become part of the campuswide card.

As each new class of students arrives, the campus population becomes more sophisticated technologically and begins to insist on amenities that make life on campus more convenient.

“Students expect the technology to be there for them to use,” says Ostrander. “It's second nature to them. They don't know anything different. And the faculty and staff are getting more like that.”


  • 49

    Percentage of U.S. colleges and universities using a “one-card” system.
    Source: National Association of Campus Card Users survey of members.

  • 70

    Percentage of U.S. colleges and universities that accept campus cards for university store purchases.
    Source: National Association of Campus Card Users survey of members.

  • 59

    Percentage of U.S. colleges and universities that use campus cards for access to residence halls.
    Source: National Association of Campus Card Users survey of members.

  • 83

    Percentage of undergraduate students who had at least one credit card in 2001.
    Source: Nellie Mae, “2001 Credit Card Usage Analysis.”

Sidebar: Changing numbers

Institutions that issue identification cards often use a person's social security number for their systems. There are good reasons — everybody has, or is supposed to have, a social security number, and by using an already familiar number, the users don't have to learn a new set of random digits.

But as people become more concerned about identity theft and technology makes it easier for savvy thieves to surreptitiously gather personal information from potential victims, many institutions are questioning the appropriateness of using social security numbers.

Sue Ostrander, manager of the NCard student ID program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, says the university has decided to stop using the social security number of a student or staff member as the identification number on the school's identification cards. Instead, Nebraska will use software to generate random ID numbers.

“As functionality and quality of the card increases, people's need for a greater sense of security using the card increases,” says Ostrander.

Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U.

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